I used to be a huge film nerd in college and then got distracted from the cinema when I graduated, focusing on games writing and teaching. I've found myself wanting to get back to cinema appreciation so I'll be writing up my thoughts on the films I watch. Sometimes it'll be criticism, other times more personal. Hope you enjoy whatever comes from it!

Annihilation And The Art Of Adaptation

I think what I'll most recall about Annihilation as the discourse about the film surges and then ebbs in the years to come, with it most certainly becoming one of those love-it-or-hate-it cult classic movies is that I left the theater after it with a profound sense of disappointment. I had read Vandermeer's trilogy, of which the first book serves as the basis for Alex Garland's adaptation, and liked it a fair amount. A distant cousin of STALKER and Roadside Picnic, the book followed an expedition of women scientists as they investigated a mysterious area alien in origin known as Area X.

The book isn't a traditional kind of horror, per se. It's more creepy than anything else, focusing on our cast of characters  as they slowly turned on one another, paranoia enveloping them.The beasts in Vandermeer's novel are the monsters that inhabit all of us: greed, distrust, the vain pursuit of knowledge. Area X just makes those things overwhelmingly powerful.

Garland's film, though it has been praised as being very unconventional is surprisingly more straightforward than the novel itself. For one, the cast of characters are now given names and detailed backgrounds as opposed to the novel's method of simply calling them by their specialties (biologist, psychologist, and so on) and having them all be standoffish with one another, at least from the narrator's point of view. The literal monsters in Garland's version of the film are also much more physically deadly than mentally, with our characters often being thrown in harm's way by actual beasts rather than turning on one another.

Garland essentially throws out about 70% of the book, changing Vandermeer's battle of the soul and mind into one that is largely physical and that's terror relies on watching our heroines be stalked by disgusting creatures.

As I sat on the drive home from the movie, all I could think about was that this movie was not like the book at all and wasn't anything like I expected it to be. When I woke up the next morning, I decided that, it was perhaps best, that Garland's film strays as far away from the source material as it does.

Adaptations are tricky business. You're always trying to service two audiences: fans of whatever material you're adapting and am audience that comes to this new work without any idea of what the old one was. The best adaptations, in my mind, are both radically different from the original piece but also retain the tenants of that work, that je ne sais quoi that made the original so special.

Take Fargo for example. The original Coen brothers movie is considered a dark comedy masterpiece filled with memorable characters and shocking moments filled with violence that doesn't feel superfluous but instead is earned and powerful. Noah Hawley's television adaptation of the film attracted raised eyebrows when it was announced but three seasons down the line, and people consider it to be one of the best modern television shows, and for good reason: it is.

The show expanded on the original concepts of film, making it a black comedy suffused with noir that happened to set in snowy Minnesota. Though Hawley doesn't use the same characters, he's telling largely the same story that the original film did: he's just digging more into the themes with the expanded space that serial storytelling affords the writers. So you not only do you get great characters, like Fargo has, but you also get to walk around their lives a bit more, and get you a better thematic picture of Fargo's universe as a whole. It's a world where con men, hapless but charming idiots, and mobsters collide to present a microcosm of America.

As I said earlier, adaptations are tricky but I can't imagine just how tricky and daunting it would be to adapt something as interested in the horrors of paranoia and mental degradation as Annihilation is. There's a reason, after all, that there almost no straightforward adaptations of Lovecraft's works and that reason is that, like Vandermeer's horrors, Lovecraft's often have no discernible shape. They exist beyond human understanding. To give them shape is to inadvertently reduce how terrifying they are.

There's a certain level of boldness that comes behind Garland's choice to make the mental horrors of Vanermeer's work literal. For me, that choice saps much of my original interest in the book away from the movie. And yet, that doesn't mean that Garland's made a bad movie by any means. On the contrary, I think that the film still has a number of things that make it feel distinct from other sci-fi films while also staying true to the source material in a way that matters.

One, having a cast of women who are portrayed as actual, complicated people who are one moment strong and the next on the verge of breaking under the strains of immeasurable terror instead of love interests or cardboard cut outs is unfortunately unique. Two, that so much of Annihilation's tense atmosphere and terror persists even though so much of the movie occurs in broad daylight is a testament to how masterful Garland is at making his monsters and squirmy scenes hit hard--you spend so much time both dreading and eagerly awaiting the next horror around the bend. And third, and this is most important, both versions of Annihilation are immensely frustrating. They're works that have no interest in answering your questions or playing to your comfort. From end to end, each of them (in their own respective ways) wants to make you squirm physically, emotionally, and existentially, and they never let up from that.

Garland's take on Annihilation might not be what I expected and, in truth, it might have even disappointed me a bit. But that doesn't mean I don't respect it a great deal and look forward to seeing it again one day.